Monthly Archives: November 2014

Reference Management

Yesterday, Liv and I discussed how to make the transition from what I like to romanticize as “hand crafted” reference lists to software-supported reference management. The CBS Library’s default suggestion is Ref Works, and I spent a perfectly pleasant afternoon learning how to use it to reference a paragraph I had written.

It really does seem like it will save me time in the long run. After all, the creation of a reference in the database is usually no more difficult than finding a source in the library’s database and then importing it into your Ref Works account. In the case of a reference to a 1977 piece in the Times Literary Supplement (not indexed in our periodicals database before 1990), we had two options: either create the reference manually, which is of course no more difficult than making an entry in your reference list the old way, or importing the reference from a reference list in one of your sources.

We chose the second method, which means I have to add a word of caution. First of all, you should always examine a source before you cite it. That is, you should never rely on another scholar’s referencing. (See this post for an object lesson.)  That was no problem here since the reference list we imported to my account was one of my own, i.e., all the references from one of my previously published papers. Here, again, there are two ways of going about it. Some publishers, like Taylor and Francis, will let you import a citation along with all the cited references. Alternatively, you can locate the paper in a larger database, like EBSCO or SCOPUS and then generate the cited reference list there. You can then import those references.

We used the first method, which did not work perfectly. It seems the publisher generates the data to export by “reading” the actual reference list and sometimes misunderstands it. That means some entries don’t have titles, for example, or that book chapters are cited like whole books. So you have to go in and clean up the entries. It’s not big deal, and still at least as easy as having a hand-made file of your references. I haven’t tried the other way yet, but I’ll report back when I do. I imagine the information that is exported from an actual literature database will be of higher quality.

I’ve been comparing the trouble you have to take to interact with the software with the default (“manual”) approach I normally use. And, like I say, I think it’s no more difficult to use Ref Works than doing it by hand. But it’s important to emphasize that it now becomes much easier to generate a reference list and, in fact, to keep track of your references (hence “reference manager“) . So it looks like at least a no-loss-win scenario. But before I get too enthusiastic about this (I’m old-school at heart in all things) I want to use it for a while, throughout the writing of a whole paper, and see whether it introduces errors I wouldn’t otherwise have made. I’ll keep you posted.

Sense and References

Colloquium: Thursday, November 27, 14:00 to 16:00  in room A 2.35 (inside the CBS Library at Solbjerg Plads)

I’ll be in Leicester on Thursday, so I will unfortunately have to cancel our craft colloquium this week. Next week, we’ll make up for it by combining writing and library issues under the heading “sense and references”, which I’ll have you know is a very clever pun for a philosopher.

We’ll spend about one of the two hours discussing citation practices in scholarly writing, i.e., how to quote, paraphrase and (not to) plagiarize your sources. The other hour will be devoted to the seamless integration of reference management software like RefWorks into these practices. As always, we’re going to keep things very practical and hands-on, looking at actual examples and doing live-fly exercises. But I can also promise a little bit of philosophical discussion. Liv (and a number of the other librarians at CBS) have been trying to for years to conquer my resistance to automated reference management. I always recommend making your literature list “by hand”. But let’s see where the conversation leads.

There is an important connection between reference management and citation practices, of course. Not the least is that mastery here will mean making something that many writers find annoying much more enjoyable. And properly citing the work of others shouldn’t actually be a source of irritation for scholars. Proper referencing is not just a bureaucratic demand of today’s citation-fixated research. The sources you cite help to establish a frame of, precisely, “reference” for your own work. Your references go a long way towards determining the meaning of the words you use. Since knowing for academic purposes is always an ability to participate in a conversation, constructing a reference should be as ordinary as constructing a claim, providing support, and implying a warrant. It should be as familiar as constructing a question and drawing out normative implications of your research. It’s part of the grammar of academic writing.

Staying Alert

One of the most established metaphors, both among writing instructors and librarians, is the image of scholarship as “parlor” conversation. Here is Kenneth Burke’s famous description:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.*

On Thursday, Liv will be talking about how to use the library’s resources to keep up with this “interminable” conversation. One good strategy is to let the literature databases “alert” you when something that is likely to constitute a contribution you are interested in is published. In addition to letting you know when something that fits a very specific set of search criteria is published (i.e., something that would have turned up in a search of the literature you’ve previously conducted if only it had been published back then), you can set it up to cast a somewhat wider net.

One of the things you should learn early on in your research career is who contributes to the conversations you’re interested in. Knowing this, you can ask the databases to alert you whenever one of those people (try to keep the list of names manageable, of course) publishes something, and even whenever something that cites one of those people is published. Now, this won’t always be of interest, but a quick look at the reference that you’ve been alerted to will easily settle that question. (The good thing about modern technology is that you’ll be provided with a quick and easy link to the source in question, and that source will then itself often be searchable.)

You will also have a good sense of the range of topics you are interested in. You can have the database alert you to anything that has been published by anyone on a particular subject. Do remember that you’re asking a machine to do this for you, so all you’ll be alerted to is articles that happen to use the subject terms you’re looking for (or whatever other search criteria you specify). Here again, you’ll want to inspect the sources that are brought to your attention, and don’t let a lack of alerts tell you that the conversation has stopped. Maybe its “terms” have just changed a little.

Finally, in addition to learning who is talking and what they are talking about, you will get an increasingly accurate sense of where the “parlor” is. Using this information, you can ask the databases to alert you every time something is published in a particular journal. This, however, is a very broad net. Most journals are devoted to countless conversations, and not all of them will be of interest to you.

In any case, if you’re interested in hearing more about how to use the library to keep abreast of the conversation, just show up on Thursday.


*The Philosophy of Literary Form, pp. 110-111.

Access, Real and Imagined

Last month I had an interesting discussion with Adam Riggio about the problems faced by researchers who are not employed at universities in accessing the academic literature, which is published by increasingly expensive journals. As a solution, Adam proposed that we “develop new styles of philosophical writing that don’t depend on referencing the dry and minor secondary literature produced in heavily audience-restricted peer reviewed academic journals whose immense subscription prices keep them behind university library firewalls.” In my view, that would be a bit extreme, since there is usually a way of accessing almost anything that has been published through your local public library’s inter-library loan agreement.

Adam was skeptical about this, but my conversations with librarians, both here in Denmark and in the US suggests that my intuition is correct here. Although it’s obviously more convenient to have the sort of on-campus access (and, often, even remote access) that students and faculty enjoy as a matter of course, it’s not the case that people not affiliated with universities are forced to cultivate a “new style of writing” that ignores the academic literature. They really just have wait a little longer to access the same literature. Not years, mind you. Days.

I was reminded of this issue when reading Charlie Potter’s contribution to the anthology Googlization of Libraries(I hope everyone enjoys the irony of my linking to Taylor and Francis for the the article, and Google Books for the book.) Here’s the key passage:

“The citation seen [on Google Scholar] by on-campus users are considerably different from those seen by users affiliated with a campus, as on-campus users see a direct link to the institution’s library in a result that is locally held. Users not located a campus but who are affiliated with a campus can activate the links provided by their library through the Google interface. After doing this, users will be able to access the available articles through the remote access authentication provided by their institution. However, if users are unaware of this technology or unaffiliated with a university, they are led to believe that they must purchase the article in order to obtain it. In reality, most of these items could be obtained by going to the local academic or public library and viewing the items on on-campus computers. In addition, the articles that cannot be obtained by a library can usually be found using interlibrary loan, a service free to those affiliated with most universities or public libraries.” (Potter 2008: 17)

I think Potter makes a very important point here. New technologies have made it much, much easier to access information. But this has also made the barriers to access more visible and, in a sense, more daunting. Libraries have to do a better job of presenting themselves as public-service institutions that provide access to things that money can also buy, admittedly a bit more conveniently. In an important sense, there’s no difference between the world of the Internet and the old days, where you could choose between subscribing to a newspaper or reading it a local library, buying a book and borrowing it.

I’d be interested to hear how other librarians, and other scholars who are not based at universities, perceive the problem.


Potter, Charlie (2008). Standing on the Shoulders of Libraries: A Holistic and Rhetorical Approach to Teaching Google Scholar, Journal of Library Administration, 47:1-2, 5-28.

Writing Process Reengineering

Twice a year, I run a writing process seminar for all the researchers at CBS. The aim is to help participants imagine their writing process as something that can be managed alongside their other responsibilities as teachers, researchers, administrators and, not least, ordinary people with lives to live outside of work.

At the core of my seminar we find the standard prose paragraph, the “unit of composition” in scholarly writing. I try to get researchers to remember that they will normally be expressing their ideas in paragraphs of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words. Each paragraph says one thing and either supports it or elaborates on it. For purposes of time management, I encourage writers to train themselves to produce a paragraph in about half an hour.

We can then organize the writing of these paragraphs across four, 8-week periods in a given year, 32 weeks in all, working between 30 minutes and 3 hours a day. That’s 2.5 to 15 hours a week, or 20 to 120 hours in a given 8-week period, or 80 to 480 hours per year. Since it is possible (for a trained and disciplined writer) to produce two paragraphs an hour, that’s 40 to 240 paragraphs every 8 weeks or 160 to 960 paragraphs per year. To put that into perspective, consider that a typical journal article consists of about 40 paragraphs. So you have time to write between 4 and 24 drafts of fresh prose every year, working at least half and hour and at most three during only 32 weeks or 160 days of the year.

The aim of the seminars is to help you establish a regular routine that gets a predictable amount of prose written during a year, fully cognizant of the many other things that will also, necessarily, occupy your attention.

None of this can guarantee that you will get published, of course. But, all things being equal, you’re more likely to improve your writing skills by writing regularly than not. And consider the added advantage of not worrying about whether or not you will get your writing done. On this model, with a bit of practice, writing is something that simply happens.

The seminars are normally held in late January and early June. I’m going to be booking the exact dates soon, and I’ll post them under the new “seminars” page. Stay posted.